Before human beings used cameras to tell their stories, before books and bards and cave paintings, probably, there was the movie of the mind, the never-ending picture starring . . . you. One can be at their lowest and still get top billing; our egos can’t help it. The world around us is the picture and we are the auteur, moving through, telling the story of ourselves.
Hader’s hitman was never one for flowery dialogue. It’s not that Barry Berkman is unfriendly, or even a man of few words. But “Barry” has taught us that what he says is meaningless next to what he does. In his best moments, Barry shows us how he wishes the world would see him. In his worst, he’s a fiend.
When the show starts, Barry is a hollowed-out gun for hire and a traumatized veteran hovering on the psychological brink, and decides to start fresh in Los Angeles by learning, in a drama class, how to be human again.
But even the community he gravitates towards in L.A. is as morally bankrupt as he is. Like him, they are acting.
Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), the most gifted performer in the class, is an abusive narcissist who believes pain is the pathway to brilliance. By the time we reach the finale season she can’t help inflicting damage on others. In Hollywood that snags her a job as a coach on a movie set. She decides she’d rather run away with Barry after he breaks out of prison, and together they disappear into the roles of a lifetime: Clark and Emily, pious parents living on a blank plain in parts unknown, where Sally is always bewigged, drinks heavily and hates every moment of her life.
These people are small. It’s the pictures “Barry” painted that made them bigger.
Barry and Sally’s actor mentor Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) tasted fame and claims to be over it, only to compromise his soul in bits and pieces to gain it again. He achieves his downfall through a willingness to sell out the memory of the woman he loved if it meant the public would see him as a self-sacrificing protagonist. When Gene tells his side of the stranger-than-fiction story of Barry Berkman, he can’t simply speak it. He has to express it through a sweaty one-man show for a Vanity Fair reporter. (Acting! Brilliant! Thank you.)
Stephen Root in “Barry” (Photograph courtesy of HBO)
Barry’s former handler Fuches (Stephen Root) spends most of the show as a soft weasel whose jealousy makes him turn on Barry. He creates a mysterious figure called The Raven who reveals Barry’s hits in whispers to the friends and family of the murdered, making Barry a hunted man before they both land in prison. But when Barry escapes, leaving the schlubby Fuches to rot, he goes a different direction – he gets hard, assembles a “flock,” and emerges from the clink a sexy, confident death machine.
Out of everyone in Barry’s circle, Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) may be the most honest about who he is, ending up in an office as brightly lit as his smile, opposed by the sunburnt grittiness of Fuches’ hacienda where he housed his “family.”
Next to “The Raven” Hank is naturally hilarious and ridiculously flashy, making him the most adorable cold-hearted crime lord in all of television. A real character, some might say.
But they all are, as Hader underlines in the way he directed these cinematically rich eight episodes.
A seamless time jump midseason allowed Hader to create a surreal visual fugue composed of Barry’s desires and the director’s inspirations. His liberal incorporation of bleeds between past and future, exteriors and interiors, and between waking life and hallucination, or imagination, or dreaming, recalls Hitchcock, Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam and modern horror greats. All of it coalesces the sad moral of the story: these people are small. It’s the pictures “Barry” painted that made them bigger.
In the penultimate episode Hank kidnaps Sally and John (Zachary Golinger), the son she shares with Barry, and offers them to Fuches as a goodwill gesture to halt the massive death wrought by their blood feud, including the off-camera beheading of the “four ultimate badass killers,” known as the FUBAKs, that traumatized the woman Fuches loved and her daughter.
Anthony Carrigan in “Barry” (Photograph courtesy of HBO)
They were nice boys, and they’re all dead now. So is Hank – in part because of his inability to admit that he is the reason the love of his life Cristobal (Michael Irby) was killed, a truth Hank hides from himself by building a “legitimate” business around a golden idol of his lover’s likeness.
The truth of who Barry, Sally, Fuches, Cousineau and Hank are, and were, is wildly farfetched and far more anguish-inducing than the diluted made-for-TV drama makes them out to be.
But what is supposed to be a simple handoff degenerates into a shoot-out, leaving Fuches alive to deliver John to Barry, and Sally to frantically call for her son in Hank’s office lobby.
The truth of who Barry, Sally, Fuches, Cousineau and Hank are, and were, is wildly farfetched – much bloodier, funnier in their heartless brutality, and far more anguish-inducing at their low points than the diluted made-for-TV drama makes them out to be.
But the ominously titled “The Mask Collector” is the means by which a teenage John (Jaeden Martell) discovers who his father “really was.”
John knew Barry as Clark, a veteran and a hero, an everyday Superman. Clark was a good Christian, prayerful and protective of his family. Barry’s also born again, in another effort to shed his past and absolve himself of his sins. But when Hank kidnaps his family Barry reverts to his old ways, finding validation in liberal interpretations of scripture that assures him that in some instances, murder is OK.
Jaeden Martell in “Barry” (Photograph courtesy of HBO)
The staid movie versions of Barry’s life, made by others and nestled within another time-jump from the day of his death to a future where Sally and John live in a snowy town, may have come off as flat for a series whose seasons tend to end with extreme violence.
In contrast, the death Sally experiences is slow and metaphorical; she’s rotting away in her mousy version of an ever-after that may not be entirely happy. She’s playing a devoted mom and high school drama teacher. She keeps everyone around her safe . . . from her. This is simply another role. Maybe she’s killing it.
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But if we understand Hader’s storytelling through his acting, and now his lens, it’s an apt final act. Hader, who directed every episode of the last season and several of the best installments before that (a peak being last year’s “710N”) keeps the setup simple, and allows angles of perspective to tell the tale. He was king of that technique this season – not just showing a character sinking into a sand trap “It Takes a Psycho” but submerging the camera with him to vicariously inflict his asphyxiation on us.
In “The Wizard” he constructs a nightmare of invasion when the flimsy walls of his and Sally’s manufactured home are assaulted by local thugs. But we don’t see them attack her. Instead, we experience Sally’s terror as the world is knocked askew by a truck lifting her bedroom off its foundation while she’s inside it.
Much calmer, and shocking in its own right, is Barry’s death at Gene’s hand in the broken acting teacher’s nicely appointed living room. Barry has just announced his intent to take responsibility for the crimes Winkler’s tragicomic thespian is being accused of, but it’s too late.
The first bang is a bullseye to the heart, surprising Barry more than anyone. That is all the poetry Barry Berkman is afforded in his final moments, along with the bonus of knowing, maybe, that he’s being shot down with a gun gifted to Gene by Rip Torn.
Louisa Krause and Jim Cummings in “Barry” (Photograph courtesy of HBO)
All he can manage is blurting, “Oh wow,” before the second bullet hits him between the eyes.
Barry’s demise in “The Mask Collector” is far more dramatic, taking place onstage at a mythical version of Gene’s acting school. The movie makes him a Machiavellian puppeteer with a villainous mug and a British accent, and Barry and Sally small-screen handsome. The climactic rescue plays out like a cross between a low-budget action flick and a Lifetime movie.
Its sanitized lie draws a firm boundary around the reality of these terrible people viewers came to love, and the fantasy hero Barry never was but always wished he could be. A killer couldn’t ask for a better legacy to bequeath to a son who loves the idea of who he might have been if he were good.
All episodes of “Barry” are streaming on Max.